Rasheed Griffith Explores the Complexities of the Caribbean

Shruti Rajagopalan and Rasheed Griffith discuss talent, music, and the shadow of colonialism in the Caribbean.

Welcome to Ideas of India, where we examine the academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and I am a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.  

Today my guest is Rasheed Griffith, who is the CEO of the Caribbean Progress Studies Institute, the host of the podcast the Rasheed Griffith Show, and one of my favorite writers on Substack. He also directs the Emergent Ventures Africa-Caribbean grants program at the Mercatus Center.

We spoke about whether the former colonizers owe reparations to the Caribbean people, economic divergence in post-colonial Caribbean countries, Caribbean music, homophobia, VS Naipaul, West Indian cricket team, and much more. 

For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit mercatus.org/podcasts.

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Hi, Rasheed. Welcome to the show.


RAJAGOPALAN: It’s very nice to have you here. You’re one of my favorite people to speak with. It’s very nice to do this face to face. You run the Caribbean Progress Studies Institute, among many other things that we can talk about. 

Just for those who are not aware, what exactly comprises the Caribbean? Are there countries that are specifically included and excluded? For our Indian audience, how is that different from what we traditionally know as the West Indies, which we mostly know through the West Indian cricket team? And how do we think about that region?

GRIFFITH: It’s the kind of question that has a surprisingly long answer. 

RAJAGOPALAN: We love long answers on this show.

GRIFFITH: The Caribbean has a different definition depending on if you ask a tourism marketer, a politician, a geographer, academic, a historian—you get different answers. Essentially, geographically speaking, the Caribbean is a very wide area. From Barbados—it’s really not properly in the Caribbean Sea—to Puerto Rico, to Cuba, you have Roatán—it’s an island off the coast of Honduras. You have all these things that really comprise the Caribbean, but you come to feel this is a bit too expansive. When you grow up in the Caribbean, depending on which language you grew up speaking, you have a different internal viewpoint of what constitutes the Caribbean.

If you’re an English speaker natively, you grew up thinking Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica, Bahamas, Bermuda, the English or British former colonies is the only Caribbean there is, plus sometimes Cuba and Haiti. However, of course, you have now Dutch Caribbean, you have Curaçao, you have Aruba, you have Bonaire. But then if you grow up in French Caribbean, you have Guadeloupe, you have Martinique. There’s actually very little interaction between, for example, British Caribbean, Dutch Caribbean, French Caribbean and, of course, you have Spanish Caribbean: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, for example.

However, there’s also an even further expansive view that I think is also quite valid as well, I think, which is you have areas on the continent that are not historically really Caribbean in many ways, but you have, for example, towns like Bluefields in Nicaragua, which is actually English speaking in many ways. At least the accent sounds very close like a Jamaican accent in some ways. I will push further and say because you cannot really extricate Caribbean from Caribbean people, when you think of Queens, New York, for example, when you think of parts of southern London, it has as many Caribbean people as some countries in the Caribbean.

You can’t exclude that diaspora either. All of that considered, you have a very expansive notion of the Caribbean geographically, but I think the cultural expansion is probably the best way to do it. There’s one thing I would love someone to do at some point, which is if you can somehow get data on the playlists on Apple Music or Spotify for different locations in the world and see the highest proportion of music being played from Caribbean genres, you could probably pinpoint where the contours actually go to because people in the Caribbean really have a particular sense of music they listen to. I suspect you can probably find a real pocket of the world that should constitute Caribbean into that cultural heritage as the actual base link.

RAJAGOPALAN: Would you also think about, say, Guyana or Suriname?

GRIFFITH: Of course.

RAJAGOPALAN: They’re larger. They’re also a little bit farther away geographically, but culturally, they have that similar colonial heritage in terms of being a former Dutch territory. They also have large populations of similar groups. They had similar plantation agriculture, that kind of a history. Is there a tension there that, “No, that’s not an island, and that’s just too far away”?

GRIFFITH: Definitely not. There’s a political unit called the Caribbean Community or CARICOM. It’s an intergovernmental organization. They don’t do that much. We’ll probably get to that later. The headquarters is in Guyana. Suriname is part of it as well. Also, Belize, which is in Central America, is also on the continent, is also in that group as well. None of those things are contradictions. People born in Barbados, for example, have a very deep exposure to Guyana, much more so than, for example, Cuba or Bermuda, for example. Those count very clearly also.

Panamanians also, for example, really think of themselves as Caribbean. Generally speaking, if you’re a person in British Caribbean, you never include Panama, but you should. Of course, you should. The fun fact with that, one of the highest proportion of builders that built the Panama Canal were from Barbados. If you go to Colón on the Caribbean side of Panama, most of the food there is actually very remnant of my food from Barbados. You really see tangible links to Caribbean, so it should have a very expansive view of where the Caribbean is.

RAJAGOPALAN: As a follow-up to that, again, we have a large Indian audience. I’m the second postcolonial generation in India. For us, I don’t think we really heard the word Caribbean other than culturally in terms of food or music as the geographical unit or the political unit, or most importantly, the cricketing unit. That is the most important always. It was West Indies, which I believe some people have told me that’s not the politically correct term anymore because it is not adopted by the people of the region. Instead, it was imposed by colonizers, but we still have institutions named the West Indian University or offices and things like that. What is a good way to think about that?

GRIFFITH: West Indies generally was the British West Indies. There was also, for example, Dutch West Indies, but generally meant British West Indies. That term fell out of favor in the postindependence period. It’s actually unclear why because many of the postcolonial writers still refer to it as West Indies. As you said, many of the institutions, for example, the university, the cricket team, other things like that still have West Indies as the moniker. I think it just happens that it became a parallel term with Caribbean. A lot of poetry became very Caribbean-centric and things like that, but it is still very synonymous. There’s no tension point, I can say.

If you ask someone West Indian, for example, you would hear the word West Indian, but not West Indies. It’s no tension point, but it definitely fell out of favor around—I actually did a Google Ngram on this at one point. It fell out of favor in the early ’60s, and Caribbean took over where Caribbean before was not really a term used in common parlance.

RAJAGOPALAN: One of the things I want to talk to you about, which is a little bit modern, but also connects our common past together, is this shared colonial history. It’s shared in a few different ways. The first is all the East and West Indian trading companies of European heritage, one went eastwards to India and Indonesia and Sri Lanka and so on, and the others came to the Caribbean. They have a similar history of their intended goals, the trade they were engaging in and so on. The second point of shared history, and this is not true, of course, of all the different countries in the Caribbean, but there are a few which have a relatively large population of Indian origin.

GRIFFITH: That’s right.

Do Former Colonizers Owe Reparations to the Caribbean People?

RAJAGOPALAN: This also came because of that shared colonial past. Depending on what time you pick, it’s somewhere between slavery and indentured labor, basically people of Indian origin who came to work on plantations or were forced to work on plantations in different parts. I think Trinidad has one of the larger populations. Suriname has a pretty large population. There’s this way in which there’s this shared history. 

You recently wrote a fantastic essay. The main point that you’re trying to grapple with in that essay is Hilary Beckles’ idea that the former colonizing countries owe massive reparations to the Caribbean countries. The argument here is based on the foundation or the assumption that the profit made by the British during the Atlantic trade of enslaved people from Africa or the slave-produced sugar and other plantation produce, that was the necessary criterion for the British Industrial Revolution. First, I just want to ask you, where is this argument coming from?

Because when I read the phrasing of Hilary Beckles’ arguments, it feels a lot like the phrasing of the 1619 Project that The New York Times did, that the prosperity that took place in the United States or Britain was based on either directly slave trade or trade of produce that was based off of slave-produced labor. Is there a commonality there? What’s a good way to think about it?

GRIFFITH: Take a little bit to set this up. Actually, before I do that, I will say, when you mentioned the India-Caribbean connection, I should point out, I grew up eating roti and curry and knew nothing about India. It was such an integral part of Caribbean food, Caribbean history as well. 

RAJAGOPALAN: To the point where when we were in Chennai together, you said, “I’m not seeing any rotis in Chennai. I thought it was supposed to be Indian.”

GRIFFITH: Yes, exactly.

RAJAGOPALAN: That’s another thing we have in common. I grew up eating rotis every day because I grew up in the northern part of India. 

GRIFFITH: The Beckles argument, I think from the outside, it is surprisingly suspicious and odd, but if you grew up in the Caribbean, it’s a very important point. This is the only thing you learn. There is no alternative story. From the history books, which I mentioned were written by Beckles—it’s this whole thing involved there. The history books were written by Beckles and people of similar ideology. The teachers primarily have the same view. The politicians have the same view. There’s not some counterargument in the Caribbean. It’s basic Caribbean truth according to who grew up there.

This isn’t based solely on ideology. Because the Eric Williams’ thesis, which is written by Eric Williams, a historian and former prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, the first prime minister actually, he wrote this thesis in Oxford, it was published in 1944. At the time, given it was a Ph.D. thesis in Oxford, it was a well-acclaimed book. It was seen as this probably is correct. Plus, keep in mind, Eric Williams, again, was the first prime minister, so you have this postcolonial heritage and ideologies in politics. He’s pushing his ideas. It becomes almost like a self-fulfilling fact, in that sense.

Also, because again, Caribbean lives precariously in a postcolonial state, you do not have that many people who have an interest in trying to combat facts that arise from postcolonial thinking. It’s why, for example, I see here in the U.S., it’s almost like it’s a contention. In the Caribbean, it’s just not. This is how life is. Postcoloniality is the circle we revolve around. However, when it comes now to thinking about it, you can see where it becomes very parasitic. If there’s no pushback, of course, there’s no way to think about these things in different terms. At the same time, around when this idea of becoming even more tractable in the Caribbean, the institutions, the institutions actually begin to fragment.

There’s very little new thinking coming from the Caribbean. We could probably get to that at some point. At the same time of Eric Williams’ thesis, there’s also this big school of economic thought called the Plantation School of Economics, which is not well known now, but still pops up when you read a lot of postcolonial theory books. They became a very prominent aspect of Caribbean ideology as well. Because academics were actually very popular in the Caribbean, for example, Walter Rodney and various people like that. The blending of academia, society and politics was very loose.

Everything fell into each other, but then when academia itself stultified, as it really is losing dynamism itself, people left the region and so on, that particular theory became the only game in town. It just transcended and transcended and transcended.

RAJAGOPALAN: Is it also almost part of the national identity, right? Because when they’re trying to craft a postcolonial identity, now that has to necessarily be different from the colonial identity, especially in parts of the Caribbean that actually fought for independence and got independence, not the ones that continued to stay as a dominion or a dependent colony. Part of that is what distinguishes us from what was before. An important part of that is, of course, political sovereignty, but the other part of it is, there is something about economics that wasn’t quite right before, which we are going to fix.

That becomes a national identity, of course, finally promoted by important academics, it almost becomes government propaganda when it comes to Williams. I also think about this in the context of India. There is a postcolonial moment when there is a particular, “What is our national identity? It has to necessarily be different from what others told us our national identity was.”

GRIFFITH: I think it goes a bit further than that in the Caribbean. There’s an institution that I haven’t written about yet, but I plan to very soon, called the British West Indies Federation. This was a four-year federation that united eight former British Caribbean countries at the same time under one government. Essentially it was Canada, but in the Caribbean, and it was going to get more expansive. The people that led that movement, there were also Caribbean people, including Williams from Trinidad, as we mentioned just now, who was premier of Trinidad, but also from Grantley Adams in Barbados, Manley in Jamaica and so on. All British educated, mind you—Oxford and LSE. There was a lot of internal opposition in the Caribbean also to that enterprise from other politicians, and then it broke down after four years.

It’s in that breakage, you see a lot of the postcolonial thinking really getting interesting at that time. It wasn’t even simply like Caribbean people wanted an opposition to colonial government. It was a particular faction of Caribbean politics as well. There’s even stronger reasons to push and push and push as well.

RAJAGOPALAN: Now, going back to that fundamental argument by Beckles about Britain growing richer off of the backs of this slave trade and trade based on slave labor-produced trade, is there any truth to that argument? Because when some of the historians wrote this, they weren’t really economic historians. They were just thinking about this from the point of view of history, but not backed by any data. But now we have a longish trend of economic historians looking at the question of British trade. There are, of course, those like Tirthankar Roywho’s been on the podcast, famous Indian and more generally world-renowned economic historian, but also others who are looking at specifically from the point of view of trade routes from Britain to other colonies. What does the evidence point to?

GRIFFITH: Originally, Williams didn’t really use particular labor metrics or exports or anything like that particularly. He used, for example, estimated profit margins from particular plantations in the Caribbean countries. He made some wild assumptions. Maybe he had a 30% profit margin, and these things and these things. In some ways, looking back, it’s like, was history that easy to do back in the 1940s in terms of data, but he made these very wild assumptions that not even any accountant would dare to make. Then based on that, his theory was being formed. There is no real model. There is no actual clear metrics. There’s no actual data hunting. There’s no OCR tests on plantation books and so on.

Data isn’t strong at all. This is why the argument from people who typically support this view tend to push the argument, the goalpost a bit further out. It wasn’t just the particular labor. It was, for example, the way it was consumed. They push and push and push to a point where we aren’t even talking about what Williams initially said, but they still call it the Williams’ thesis. Even two weeks ago, Penguin republished the Williams’ “Capitalism and Slavery,” again, two weeks ago. I can’t say no historians because clearly there are, but there is no data that has come out recently to even support Williams. There is data when you push the goalpost, for example, on things like, look at the trade tonnage from the Caribbean compared to other crops, and so on.

You might get some data on that. Even if we go there, it doesn’t add up. The main point is that, that isn’t the Williams’ data, that isn’t his thesis either. Even if you find new data to have a different model of the world, you can’t attribute it back to Williams’ actual thesis. That’s part of the problem. Beckles, Beckles meaning Hilary Beckles in the books, doesn’t actually engage in the literature. He takes it for granted. I would say maybe it’s a political thing he’s doing, but I really do think he believes this. He takes it for granted that Williams is correct.

When you say, is there a parallel between, say, the 1619 Project here in the U.S., there is because the opposition to the argument is always met with, “You are racist if you say I am wrong.” That’s actually a clear parallel there. It’s like a willful ideological argument at this point. It’s not actual history.

RAJAGOPALAN: One thing that I find quite interesting in the arguments of the 1619 Project is you can see some quite strong links to critical race theory thinking. Basically, it all goes back to the postcolonial, postmodern Marxists. To me, that seems like a commonality. Are the postcolonial, postmodern Marxists of the Caribbean informing the Americans, and that was the way the ideas percolated to the U.S.? Because they didn’t have these ideas in the 1940s and ’50s. Is it the other way around, or is it the British who have just exported this problem everywhere in the world, and now people have it as a hammer and they just go looking for nails and then wherever it fits, they just start hammering away at it?

GRIFFITH: Usually, when you read a lot of postcolonial theory in the U.S., they always quote Fanon or Aimé Césaire. These are Caribbean political theorists, for example. It does seem the real birth of proper postcolonial theory is from the Caribbean, which would make sense. That went into Europe, then eventually came back around to the U.S.

The Counterfactual for Caribbean Colonies

RAJAGOPALAN: One of the things that you argue, you completely debunk this idea of Industrial Revolution profiting from this, one, because the basic dates and timelines don’t add up at the very low level, and of course, all the data that you’re talking about that the economic historians have produced. After that, you move in a slightly different direction in the second part of your essay where you’re really talking about, “Hey, who is to blame for the woes of the Caribbean people and the impoverishment that’s taken place?”

One of the interesting arguments that you make is that the Caribbean countries that are still dependencies, that is, kind of colonies but called slightly by a different name, outperform the Caribbean countries that chose to be independent. First, what does the evidence look like on that? How much richer or poorer are we talking? Then we can go into the reasons for that.

GRIFFITH: I made that point because you need a counterfactual somewhere to have the conversation. Of course, Beckles and similar arguments, don’t ever try to build a counterfactual. I, who grew up in the Caribbean, know that Cayman Islands has a substantially higher GDP per capita than Barbados, Martinique has a substantially higher and so on.

RAJAGOPALAN: Sorry to interrupt, but Cayman Islands has a substantially higher GDP per capita than the U.K. at this point.

GRIFFITH: Yes. I’m thinking something has to be going okay there. Something is going okay there. When you look at the data—there has been some literature on this. I wish there was more of it. I think in many ways, it’s become a bit politically incorrect and oftentimes now these days, we do it. I want to push and have some more of that done because I think the Caribbean is a very good litmus test for all these counterfactual arguments we want to build. There has been some data. There’s a paper called “Islands as Natural Experiments.” What they [James Feyrer, Bruce Sacerdote] did, they essentially tracked the growth of countries through their colonial period, and they did the regression and realized that the longer you have been a colony, the higher your GDP per capita has been.

It’s normally 42% for a hundred years essentially. You have some data there that shows that longer time as a colony, higher performance. There’s also a separate paper that compared the independent countries to dependent countries. Again, in those cases, sovereignty, the variable sovereignty is a negative effect on economic performance in the current time. You do have that information. Then obviously you just literally plainly look at the HDI, the Human Development Index, for example, for these different islands compared to independent countries, it’s always higher.

You could look, for example, at performance of education, the PISA scores and so on is always higher. Even all these different, let’s say, nonobvious venues, you can see, “The performance is a lot better in the dependent territories.” Now, there is a thing where you can compare dependent territories. Because I don’t think it’s been done well yet, but you can clearly do it. Comparing, for example, French dependencies to British dependencies to Dutch and so on. From my own anecdotal assessment, usually British dependencies outperform, but then there’s a lot of good data historically, for example, that British colonies in general outperform French and even Spanish and Portuguese.

RAJAGOPALAN: There’s also that big literature on institutions, where they say that countries that have common law are quite different and probably better for economic growth than the countries that adopted civil law. This is the Shleifer, La Porta, that work and so on. You finally bring it down to the question of state capacity, which is a little bit more Acemoglu, Robinson, Johnson’s work. The places where the colonizers actually set up shop and made investments as opposed to just being this extractive mining company thing. The more investment there is in building state capacity, the higher the chance that that particular colony is going to do better.

You land on a similar point that one of the reasons the dependent colonies do better than the independent countries is because of bigger investments in state capacity, and at the end of the day, they’re operating in the shadow of the institutional scaffolding that the U.K. offers, which is a thousand-year-old institutional scaffolding, much more certain, much more stable, less likely to change because of the local politics or something else that might be going on in the moment. Is there a good way to think about that state capacity across the different Caribbean islands?

GRIFFITH: Oh, very good question. I’m actually working on a piece right now to explain this particular point. Let me give you the example of Jamaica to build my case. Jamaica is a very well-known Caribbean country. We all know it. There was a paper that actually even Acemoglu, as someone who used Jamaica, the Barbados comparison as well. There’s also another paper by Blair Henry that also discusses the comparison between Jamaica and Barbados. They’re saying that Barbados and Jamaica have fundamentally the same institutions. Therefore, it is a surprise that the outcome post independence has diverged so much. Therefore, it’s really a macro policy divergence in the governments. I don’t think that is fully true.

In a previous post on my Substack I discussed the real actual precolonial divergence of Jamaica and Barbados in some detail. Let me stick on the Jamaica thing in particular. All Caribbean countries but all colonies in general, they have very complex histories when it comes to management of governance, and it’s very difficult to just say, “Hey, this one was British, and this one was not a British.” Even if they were British, they have differences to other British countries and also differences inside themselves over different periods. 

Jamaica, like most Caribbean countries, Jamaica had a particular settler colonial class, which is still the correct term to use. The settler class managed the assembly, the parliament and so on. Later on there was a governor, but the governor didn’t really have that much control over the country. The assembly had. The assembly of, again, full of the plantation owners, they did not really put any investment into public finances, education, anything like that. It’s in Jamaica. Things got pretty bad. Then in 1865, the Crown took over Jamaica. They insert Crown colony rule, and the governor essentially had all the power at that point in time. 

When that happened, and there’s some good data by a Ph.D., was published not too long ago—I will quote it in the Substackwhere he shows that one good thing about British governance, they have blue books going back centuries, you have all the data. Public investments substantially increased after Crown colony took over from the assembly of the plantation owners. Everything went up: Education went up, health also went up and so on. People tend to forget that pre-independence, there wasn’t just one way of governing from England. The countries which had actual direct involvement from the British administration had a lot better performance over time.

I see that now some of the colonies, the dependencies that have direct essentially foreign involvement have a lot better performance. I like that example of Jamaica because people say, “Oh, but Jamaica was a colony, it didn’t perform that well before.” There was a difference. It was a colony, but had different governance entirely over time. You could see it it’s a very dramatic break in the data. It’s a very nice chart. You will see it. The countries that had the most involvement of British administration actually perform a lot better.

There’s some clear example of that even in modern period where Turks and Caicos, for example, British dependency, they had a political scandal on so on not too long ago. Britain actually took back over Crown rule, called the direct rule these days, in this was 2009 or so, around that time. That’s very recent. BVI, they had a scandal and they were—

RAJAGOPALAN: That’s the British Virgin Islands?

GRIFFITH: Yes. They were considering to also reclaim BVI for a bit to reinstitute the governance there and so on. You have these situations. There’s a very good example also—I guess let me end at this point. There was a particular argument that the British administration was bad for the human rights and so on. That’s the postcolonial thinking now. Of course, when you go back in data, countries that had the most British administration actually had better performance on these human rights characteristics like this. A good example right now you can use is the gay rights. Because right now, the countries that have British dominance have the most progressive gay rights as well. Same with French, same with Dutch and so on, and the independent territories—


GRIFFITH: —are way worse.

RAJAGOPALAN: I want to dig into that separately. I want to stick with this point where you compare. One of the interesting arguments is also the comparison between Jamaica and Cayman Islands post independence, right?

GRIFFITH: That’s right.

RAJAGOPALAN: Because if this is about the British colonies and then first initially the settler colonizers and then the Crown, then the postcolonial outcomes should be quite divergent and divergent in the other direction. That is, Jamaica should have done much, much, much better than the Cayman Islands because Jamaica became independent and Cayman Islands chose—is chose the right word?


RAJAGOPALAN: If I remember correctly—

GRIFFITH: That’s right.

RAJAGOPALAN: —they chose to stay—

GRIFFITH: They chose to stay.

RAJAGOPALAN: —with the British as a colony as opposed to joining Jamaica as an independent republic or having their own sovereign state. That is another interesting comparison. Jamaica and Cayman Islands, the divergence is just really big. We’re talking 20 times GDP per capita at this point.

GRIFFITH: That’s right.

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s not a minor difference. What’s a good way to think about that?

GRIFFITH: Again, another really good counterfactual, Caribbean is full of these nice examples of counterfactuals. Cayman and Jamaica was essentially one unit where Jamaica essentially oversaw the Cayman administration. Then when it comes to independence, the Jamaica government is, at that time, independent government—as in independent of Britain but not independent in sovereignty—decided to move toward independence, and the Caymans were like, “No, actually we prefer this other route.” 

I mentioned the federation plan earlier because it was generally agreed. This the strangest thing currently to think about now, in some ways. It was generally agreed by the Caribbean leaders that it would be a bad idea for small rocks in the ocean to be independent countries. The only real way forward is to have a united front under the Crown, like Canada, to actually amalgamate civil services, amalgamate capital and those things like that. The Caymans and the BVIs have been like, “That makes sense.” When you had this fissure in domestic politics, the Cayman administration, which again, still had autonomy and so on, decided like, “No, the actual original plans still made more sense. We’re going to go back to the U.K., and you can go ahead and do your independence, let’s see how that goes.”

India, Caribbean and Scale

RAJAGOPALAN: Here, the other interesting comparison is some of the literature in India. The way you talk about there’s this recent Ph.D. that you mentioned, which talks about the difference between the investments in different islands and so on, and also before and after the Crown took over. In India, there’s a similar literature. One paper I really like is by Alexander Lee. He looks at places where the land tenure systems in India were different. He says that the land tenure system that actually ended up performing better, one of the reasons for that is it was directly under the British. They were directly responsible for collecting tax revenue as opposed to delegating it to the feudal aristocracy of India.

Once you start engaging in directly collecting land revenue, you, of course, have a collector’s office, and then you put down some roots, and then a few British civil servants and administrators will show up, and then they start issuing birth and death certificates. They open a little school, and they deal with how to figure out the problem of cholera or how to deal with plague against smallpox. As you see, those places have development outcomes, but more importantly, the shadow cast by history is so long when it comes to state capacity that the investments made in state capacity 150 years ago, those places still have more state capacity today and have better development outcomes.

There’s an interesting literature in postcolonial countries more generally on this. On state capacity, that has always been considered one of the original sins of the British when it came to India. There wasn’t a similar slavery situation. The indentured labor that was placed on ships and sent to plantations in the western Indies and so on is a relatively tiny fraction of the people who went to Africa, the people who went to South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia, the West and East, so on. The biggest thing is always about extraction, about imposing mercantilism and cutting off India from developing its free trade networks further, and of course, just not making sufficient investments in state capacity.

What ends up happening in postcolonial India is that actually postcolonial India grows faster even under central planning than what happened in the, say, last five, six decades under British rule. When Nehru takes over, even though now in hindsight we know that he has the wrong economic model, the economy is growing at 4%, whereas it was stagnant at under 1% in the first five decades of the 20th century. That becomes an important distinction. Do you think the differences that actually in the Caribbean islands larger investments were made in state capacity, they just had to because the islands were fragmented, so you do have to invest differently?

Do you think India managed to grow fast despite the wrong economic model after colonialism because of scale, in a way that Jamaica and other countries that became independent could have never hoped for that kind of scale? That kind of scale really matters when you’re breaking away as part of the former colony and sort of setting out on your own journey.

GRIFFITH: The scale is I think on the other side where because the Caribbeans are so small, it’s easier to build state capacity in that sense, especially, for example, I think of somewhere like Barbados where it essentially had independent parliament. Again, when I say independent, I mean in terms of the administrative power you have for over 300 years. In so doing, the things that were able to be built up actually took hold because there weren’t as much fragmentation, there was not much risk of power sharing, there were not that many groups to have different interest groups and so on.

Also, because the educated class typically all went to one place—similar to India in many ways—went to London, but they come back, and then their power has a larger effect because it’s a small place. Because the Caribbean countries are so small, state capacity is relatively easy to have but it also has a relatively larger impact on the country because of the public sector structurally will always be a lot bigger relative to the country. That’s, to me, the bigger impact because Britain can easily make a difference in small countries because the state capacity goes a lot further, whereas if it was somewhere like India—as you know, in case of India there were not that many British administrators in India.

RAJAGOPALAN: Very few actually.

GRIFFITH: Yes, very few. In the Caribbean, still very few, but that very few have a bigger impact.

Is Saint Lucia the Best at Spotting Talent?

RAJAGOPALAN: On the very few have an impact, I’m marveling sometimes at how certain islands have managed to have an outsized impact compared to others. Here, one that comes to mind is Saint Lucia. It is not the largest, it doesn’t have the most number of people, it doesn’t have the highest GDP per capita. On both of those, it’s somewhere in the middle or the bottom of the middle, but two out of the three Nobel laureates from the Caribbean are from Saint Lucia. This is [Williams] Arthur Lewis, this is Derek WalcottNaipaul is, of course, Trinidad and Tobago.

When we look at Emergent Ventures applications, which is something both you and I do but for different parts of the world, we know that at least per capita, Saint Lucia has the best or the most number of applicants and winners. What is going on there? Was there something special that happened there 200 years ago that we have not paid attention to? Is something special happening there today? What’s going on?

GRIFFITH: I will make one correction. You said two of the three Nobel laureates, they’re two of the four.

RAJAGOPALAN: Oh, four. Who’s the fourth?

GRIFFITH: You’ve got Perse from Guadeloupe.

RAJAGOPALAN: Oh, of course. 

GRIFFITH: Saint Lucia is a very interesting country, also because even its own culture is a bit different from the other British Caribbean countries. It had French colonization earlier on, then British and things like that. I think, however, it is a situation where you have the social, in this case good, but social contagion of good effects quite quickly, where you have people like Walcott and Williams. And because it’s that really small space, you can really push that in people’s psyche a lot faster. At least that’s to me, my idea for why it is, now. Similarly, in Jamaica you have very fast runners. They have some very good examples, people are really pushed to get there. It’s actually easier because I know someone who knows someone that does this thing. That social effect is really very strong in the Caribbean in many ways. 

Why initially you have two is, to me, a mystery. Because Walcott and then Williams were two different things, literature and economics. It’s surprising. However, in some ways, and people don’t want to hear this in some ways, but I think back then, it is very difficult to think about the Caribbean as separate from the U.K., especially from these very high intellectual activities.

Williams and Walcott, 90% of their productive years were in London and same with Naipaul, exactly. Perse was mostly in Paris, for example. I do think that it could reasonably be a random chance that they’re from Saint Lucia, but being from the Caribbean you get that same thing. If you include them into British numbers, it’s not that particularly high of a proportion.

RAJAGOPALAN: I’m not including them in British numbers.

GRIFFITH: Yes, I know you don’t, but I’m saying that it’s tricky often for me to think about it because given really only their childhood was spent fundamentally in their home country—and for Walcott and Naipaul that really had a big impact. The majority of their education, thinking, all of that really was in London.

RAJAGOPALAN: I would think that’s the case for most of the extremely gifted people, especially those who go on to become Nobel laureates. For instance, Amartya Sen, who counts himself as Indian, I would count him as Indian, did most of his work outside of India. I’ll tell you why I think it might be worth thinking about more carefully is the Caribbean region is fairly large. It’s not a very large population, it’s very scattered. It’s interesting that there was something happening in Saint Lucia where the truly gifted people were spotted at the right time as truly gifted. They managed to go where they needed to go.

GRIFFITH: It’s a very good example. Both of them had British scholarships. So did Naipaul as well.


GRIFFITH: Yes. Many of them from Barbados also.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. That I think is the interesting thing. What was going on here? Was it networks and connections? Was it one particularly great, I don’t know, educational institution or educational leaders that managed to create this conduit or pipeline that, “We will identify the very gifted people,” and then they can actually magnify that impact by integrating better within the global intellectual movement, whether it is from England or whether it’s by coming to the United States or whatever?

GRIFFITH: If we have that broader view because again the thing you know about is a bit different from how I think of what it is. In terms of that talent spotting, Caribbean is one of the examples of regions that has—there’s so many examples, I grant that—but a very clear example is very high talent pool that you can easily spot. It is for this reason. Testing just academically, for example, you still have very strong tests in the Caribbean from 11 years old. When you’re 11 years old, different Caribbean countries have the same test. Depending on your score, you get assigned to a secondary school.

From that secondary school then, generally speaking, the higher scores, they get a bit more resources and so on, they also have a lot more tests. The Caribbean equivalent of GCSE, A levels were designed to be a lot more difficult. I did ask some people, some older teachers who said because they wanted that very best people from the Caribbean get these tests good scores and they get into the U.K., they can outperform. They made it much harder than the A levels and GCSEs in the U.K. Also, because this is a very small space and you do lots of testing, you can really get a good example of people getting to top quite quickly, you can really see it in a very clear way, then they give them these scholarships.

The Caribbean still does—other than the scholarships and other countries as well do it, but if you are lucky enough to get all A’s at your A levels, you get a full scholarship to anywhere in the world, essentially speaking. There’s some caveats here. Because also they really prize education. There are many problems of government policy in the Caribbean, which we’ll get into at some point. Even in education that’s not properly funded sometimes, culturally speaking, they really, really put a lot of emphasis on education from a very early age. We have all of that reinforcing itself.

You have the testing, and you have the cultural appreciation for smarts, you have all these things, you can really get the talent pool going quite quickly. I think, going back to Saint Lucia, it is difficult because personally I don’t really see Saint Lucia as outlier from the things that I see in the Caribbean. Even for example, especially we know about that literature, many Caribbean literary theorists will agree, Naipaul will agree, I know he will agree, that it is a surprise that Walcott got that prize, compared to all the other really good, talented—like Kamau Brathwaite from Barbados and so on.

RAJAGOPALAN: They almost call him British for all practical purposes, because his colonial identity is not quite the same as Naipaul. Naipaul is more true-blue Caribbean and is against the colonizers. There’s some politics. He’s almost too much like the British.

GRIFFITH: Yes, in many ways there. Because I don’t really see them as outliers in the Caribbean talent pool, even historically speaking, going to the exception, is I don’t think Saint Lucia itself has something particularly strong going for it. I think the Caribbean pool in general has this particularly good talent identification system, but it’s usually not—you have to drag people out a bit more and you’re still operationalized, but Saint Lucia to me isn’t that “special” when it comes to this.

Caribbean Civil Rights Movement

RAJAGOPALAN: The other thing I want to ask about, now that we’re talking about this selection effect and are they culturally different or similar, when I was growing up, I actually knew about the civil rights movement in South Africa and the African postcolonial movement and in the Caribbean, even before I had really studied or read about what was going on in the United States. Some of this, of course, again, has to be about cricket. I am sorry, I keep coming back to it, but that is our most important life pastime and national pastime in India.

You’ve seen the documentary “Fire in Babylon.” Both of us are too young to have actually been around at that time. I know many people, my parents’ generation, my cousins who were and who actually saw the West Indian cricket team as this huge inspiration and furthering the civil rights movement, not through lectures and demonstrations and coups, but through just excelling in their sport. 

My first question is, how is the Caribbean civil rights movement different from what was taking place in the United States in the very similar time period? What was taking place in Africa in a very similar time period? That would be the first question. Then we could talk about all the other things after that.

GRIFFITH: Civil rights, are you referring to the ’60s, ’70s? The most important thing to remember, which is obvious, but it’s primarily Black people. The government’s also primarily Black. There was really no civil rights movement per se in the Caribbean except for the independence movement. Because of that, there was no second fissuring going on, essentially. When you have the independence movement which is in the ’60s, that’s where everything is coalesced around. All the nation-building mythos, all of that is around 1960s for the independence movement. Cricket, strongly per se, strongly is also reference to that independence movement as well.

It’s never framed as civil rights. It’s always framed as sovereignty acquisition, as independence in general. The postcolonial period represents that move from pre-1960 to post-1960 in the Caribbean. Also, another very key figure in especially known in America, critical race theory, and so on was C.L.R. James. He was a very big theorist on cricket. He wrote a whole book called “Beyond a Boundary” and so on about this particular thing, because cricket was that reducible variable when you pivot around for sovereignty and nonsovereignty, colony and noncolony.

That was the crystallization effect that Caribbean point to where you can say, “Hey, when we can beat England in cricket, when we dominate cricket, that should identify to all Caribbean people, we are actually a strong, proud culture and people and government, and we should not allow ourselves to be subjugated by the British.” Cricket was that pivot point.

That is the thing that he mentioned people from all around the world that still in that British colonial system essentially can see and say how those guys, that Black team from the West Indies, they are really showing what you can do as a strong, proud new country. Cricket really has a massive, massive impact on Caribbean culture, but also Caribbean psyche.

RAJAGOPALAN: Here, it’s an interesting point because you’re right. This is more about a global racism paradigm and finding your place in what was the old pecking order or hierarchy where, even in Africa, the people who were doing really well within cricket were—even after independence, it was so clear that the cricket team would be all white. The rugby team is pretty much all white.

Even postcolonial politics has not quite penetrated some of those country clubs and cricket clubs and so on. There it’s more a matter of just outward battling racism and battling the sense of superiority that other people had, as opposed to the civil rights movement, which is literally about a fight against the establishment, fight for public spaces, desegregation, what’s happening in the schools and so on.

That’s an interesting distinction, but somehow, it feels like there was a moment in time that was such a big cultural influence of the Caribbean across the world, and that seems to have diminished in some sense. Is it because they made their point, they were fantastic at cricket? In terms of sporting events, the Caribbeans moved on to other things. Now it’s not the cricketers who are the national heroes. It’s Bolt or one of the more modern athletic sports. Is that what has happened or is it that, the world over, just the conversation has changed. It’s no longer about culture. It’s about fighting this through treaties and laws. It’s just more political and legal than it is cultural.

GRIFFITH: I have some various views on this one. Cricket, as you said, it had a point to make. The team had a point to make, the political class that surrounded cricket had a point to make. That point was made. However, the decline of the West Indies team coincides also with the decline of the West Indies. It reflects both sides, where it became a lot more insular. Different island politics became a lot more insular, what they’re thinking about. 

There was no incentive anymore to be regional. There was no incentive to be collaborative. There was no incentive for cross-investment. Everybody wants to pull everything to their own country. The cricket team disintegration, to me, mirrors well the university structure in the Caribbean as well because in the Caribbean, the University of the West Indies was primarily, initially, based in Mona in Jamaica. If you want to go there, you go through Jamaica.

However, over time, as the country became independent, they wanted their own campus. There’s now a campus in Barbados, there’s one in Trinidad, there’s one in Jamaica, they’ve opened one in Antigua, they have an online campus. It really disintegrated. Now, of course, because of there’s not that many people, therefore not that many teachers, it’s spread very thin. That way—

RAJAGOPALAN: They lost the economies of scale basically.

GRIFFITH: They lost the economy of scale. You mentioned earlier about the intellectual things in the Caribbean, they used to be all in one place. Now they’re fragmented. They really got back to that scale point.

RAJAGOPALAN: They either all hung out together in the Caribbean or hung out together in London.

GRIFFITH: Exactly, sure.

RAJAGOPALAN: That has just disappeared now.

GRIFFITH: That’s disappeared. The team has that same issue. Remember, there’s an oval now in Barbados, but Jamaica wants some piece, then Antigua says, “come back here.” The politicians, again, the political class has really pulled back from regionalism. The investment in the team went down, those kind of things went down. The decline of the investment in the cricket team perfectly mirrors general decline of investment in the regional integration.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, basically cricket is the same thing. You got to hang out together, you got to tour together. This is also true of music, on two margins. Okay, maybe there’s been a decline also in music, but the music is still very, very good because you can still go back and listen to the past records and they still feel fresh in a way that it’s much harder to do with past cricket matches when you know the outcome. That’s a little bit different.

Innovation in Caribbean Music

First of all, did Caribbean music stop being innovative at some point, which mirrors the other sectors that you mentioned, because it became more insular? If so, why? I have a slightly different theory on it, other than island insularity, and then we can talk about that.

GRIFFITH: Okay. Okay, okay. Yes. I do think that Caribbean music became less innovative over time. This is one of the mysteries of the Caribbean. There’s so many mysteries in the Caribbean that’s still unsolved. Caribbean music was innovative in a time where you wouldn’t really even expect it to be innovative. Generally, this is the thing, the innovation period of Caribbean music was at the same time the West Indies team was at the top.

The same time Williams and Walcott put out their best work. The same time. It’s the same time. Everything literally declined after the ’70s and so on. Caribbean music is interesting because to this day, I would say, by the way, that I cannot listen to a reggae band or slightly Caribbean and enjoy it. There’s something about it that I’ll get into that at some point, that just isn’t correct. 

But in any case, innovation from Caribbean reggae in particular still has a different orientation now we call Afrobeats, still has that innovation going on there. With Afrobeats, what happened is all these Jamaican artists went to London, they met the Nigerians and that’s how you have Afrobeats. You hear the underlying patterns of Afrobeats, it’s just Jamaican dancehall. It’s just Jamaican dancehall.

When the economies got quite bad over time, many of the really good people out here, “I can actually make money in London or in New York or Toronto. Let me just go there.” They left. Then they went there. You fragment yourself. You don’t really continue that innovation, back and forth effect, so it disintegrated over time.

In the Caribbean itself, because people left a lot faster and there was again the sense of regionalism and Caribbeana also declined over that time, so you had less of the willingness of the people who should innovate to innovate because they go to London or somewhere like LA. They tag onto other things, so you lose that centrality in the Caribbean, but they still put themselves into other things.

I still see Caribbean music everywhere as being innovative. For example, if you look at the top 20 most-played music videos on YouTube for example, a big chunk are Caribbean music rhythms. It’s not called that. It’s always something else. Something like tropical house, but you can hear it.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, but you can’t hear the Caribbean in it.

GRIFFITH: Exactly you hear it.

RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely.

GRIFFITH: To me, the impact has not diminished per se but because there has been—

RAJAGOPALAN: The identity has defused.

GRIFFITH: The identity, exactly, has defused and diminished in that sense.

RAJAGOPALAN: I’ll tell you my take on this, and I think the people to blame for this are the diaspora. My sense is with the economic decline in different parts of the Caribbean, a large market for artists to innovate within the domestic economy reduces like you said. They have to go to London, they got to go to these other places. The diaspora always tends to freeze in time.

If they leave home in 1960s, that is the Caribbean of their mind. That is the Jamaica, that’s the Barbados that they care about. If they leave in 1980s, that is the thing that’s frozen in their head. Then you either have to mimic what was happening 20 years ago so that the diaspora comes and they will pay tickets and they will listen to you, or you have to assimilate into the British local artists or the New York or the LA local artists. I think it’s the diaspora being frozen in time that led to this problem. Is that something you would agree with? Actually, the Caribbean diaspora in some parts is as large as the home population and they’re richer.

GRIFFITH: Yes. That’s definitely true. The numbers for Jamaica and Barbados are very clear on this.

RAJAGOPALAN: Do you think that might be one of the reasons? They just want to go back and hear Bob Marley and Bob Marley copycats because that’s the time they’re frozen in and then anything that’s new has to assimilate to appeal to the next generation and so on, and they never kept their music alive in the innovative sense. They kept it alive in the purity frozen in time, that’s the Jamaica I remember, that’s what I want to hear.

GRIFFITH: It could be something like that. I think on that point when you have a system—because I’m thinking about Puerto Rico and New York for example in this case where that has not diminished. The very big back and forth is still very there but one thing you hear—I always get surprised when Americans tell me this. I asked an American, “Are you American?” “No. I’m Puerto Rican.” “Were you born there?” “No. I was born in New York,” or, “LA.” “What?”

I think because often in the Caribbean, there is no cultural transmission in the diaspora. The diaspora itself doesn’t really inculcate its children into Caribbean culture. Your children are British. Your children are Canadian. Where I find comparatively, for example, Nigeria is a good example. They really go hard on this thing and then Puerto Ricans and so on are like, “Oh, you’re Puerto Rican. You are not American. You have American passport but you are Puerto Rico.” Where in the Caribbean, we tend not to do that.

RAJAGOPALAN: All the benefits were from integration, right?



RAJAGOPALAN: That’s the other part of it as opposed to from seclusion. The other aspect of culture I want to talk about—and this is a little bit tricky. I hear from my Caribbean friends, my friends in the United States who visit the Caribbean that they feel sometimes that the Caribbean culture more generally, of course, there’s differences in islands, can be quite homophobic.

Is this a cultural problem? Is there something going on in Caribbean culture that’s leading to this, or is this just old Victorian laws that haven’t quite gotten off the books? That’s where that point that you were making about the islands that continue to remain British territories or French territories or Dutch territories have better same-sex rights whether there’s decriminalization, whether it’s marriage, all the extended rights, medical treatment, everything that comes from it as opposed to the independent countries which are again a little bit frozen in time. They inherited a Victorian playbook, they’ve kept the Victorian playbook and now it’s difficult to change.

GRIFFITH: I’ll clarify that point you’ve made about the dependencies because that will make it clear. The dependencies—let’s focus on British dependencies in the Caribbean. They were forced to remove the criminality of homosexual acts in their laws because culturally, they’re still Caribbean and they did not want to do it. This is the case where Britain stepped in and said, “No. You have to do this.” I’ll use that example.

Culturally it’s very homophobic. I am gay, I grew up in the Caribbean and there is a particular song, every gay Caribbean person knows it and could talk of it before I say it probably, by T.O.K. Essentially it’s about killing gay people essentially.

RAJAGOPALAN: Lynching, right?


RAJAGOPALAN: It’s awful.

GRIFFITH: Exactly. Burning. You hear it on the radio. You grow up hearing it on the radio. It’s banned I think in some places now but you still hear it.

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s so mainstream everyone knows it.

GRIFFITH: It’s so mainstream, everyone knows it. Funny enough—I don’t know if funny is the right word here—but funny enough, you go to a gay party in the Caribbean, you will hear that song. You will hear that song being played, people dancing to it because that’s the thing with Caribbean culture. Caribbean culture has a baseline of vulgarity in everything we do. Kind of why I like it as well. You have this adverse reaction but you still respond to it in a very particular way.

Caribbean culture is very homophobic and same in Africa as well. Clearly, this is stemming from very British institutions and so on, mixed with all the African institutions as well, and it is very Christian but not in the progressive Anglican way, not as Protestant as well. 

Sometimes you hear in the Caribbean being said in a much strong terms but it’s this more Protestant, very Presbyterian, Puritan, but aggressive Puritan way of Christianity that you find in the Caribbean, which is still the case also in many African countries. That is the bigger point to why it’s still so homophobic. In the Caribbean, it also varies a lot. Barbados for example is very homophobic but you can go about your life and it’s mostly okay. 

RAJAGOPALAN: Especially if you’re elite. They’re integrated into the global culture, so the elites behave differently than how the laws and the rest of the culture behaves.

GRIFFITH: I remember—this is a story, I went to an event. It was a Central Bank of Barbados event, many years ago. I was still in university. I did a paper at the event. We had a little cocktail party and so you could bring a date. For some reason, I decided to bring a male date. I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea, but I just did it. 

RAJAGOPALAN: How old were you?

GRIFFITH: I was 20.

RAJAGOPALAN: Oh, wow. Okay.

GRIFFITH: I was 20. I did that. Then I brought him and I just said, “Hey, this is this and this.” He’ll be like, “Oh, okay. Hello.” No one cared. No one cared. You can’t do that in nonelite circles in the Caribbean. That’s a very good point. The elite part of it, the cosmopolitan aspect of it is completely fine. In the majority of places, it is not fine. Of course, in legal terms for mostly Caribbean still—Jamaica, for example, still has the anti-gay sex laws, for example, still on the books. Barbados, I think, just removed them, for example. In that level, it’s still quite a homophobic place to live.

The French Caribbean, I believe, have gay marriage, where they have gay marriage for French laws. The British Caribbean actually does not have gay marriage because this is one of the things England decided to not push. They wanted to push it. It actually could build in their things saying, “We could push you, but can you please push us a little bit further?” They realized that the gay sex law, you really can’t allow that to go on. We’re going to push that one off. For this one, it’s just less contentious. They’re hoping the Caribbean Council actually get a way to do it themselves. I think we’re very far off from seeing it by political action, very far off in the Caribbean from getting that passed.

RAJAGOPALAN: I’m surprised, especially that there is less movement than I would have expected in the last decade or so, for two reasons. One, because the United States is the biggest cultural exporter, and the Caribbean is a huge consumer of American culture in this sense. Whether you look at American television, American movies, American artists, generally the vibe in America, if I can call it that, it’s very inclusive. I’m sure in the Caribbean, they would say it’s almost too inclusive, but it’s very inclusive. That doesn’t seem to have penetrated beyond the elite circle. That’s one point of surprise for me.

The second reason I’m surprised by it is maybe this is a little bit of nostalgia, visiting as a tourist or hanging out with people of Indian origin. It just somehow feels like a very inclusive place to me where people are quite relaxed about, “Okay, that’s who you want to worship, that’s who you worship. This is what you want to drink, that’s what you want to drink. This is what you want to wear.” It feels to an outsider like an extremely relaxed culture that has strong norms, but largely, people will also let you do what you want to do. That doesn’t seem to have translated when it comes to same-sex relations. What is going on on these two margins?

GRIFFITH: In Caribbean culture, sex is not a laissez-faire activity in terms of the mental model you have. Again, this is an ironic thing because Caribbean culture is also very famous for Carnival. Carnival, especially Caribbean dance styles, is very sexual. Somehow, Caribbean culture evolved to live within contradictions. They love a good contradiction going on.

Because of that, everything revolves around in many, many ways, like sexual relations. It’s one of the few things that is surprisingly undiscussed when it comes to Caribbean culture. Usually, when you have something that taboo, it has to be that important. Sex and church is also tricky. I mentioned that the Caribbean has a very strong Christian ethic, but it is not the same kind of Christian ethic you would think is in England. It’s not that. If you’re in America, like a Black Southern church is the closest comparison to give in America. The way they think about religion is very bodily-centric. It is not super spiritual per se.

A lot of religion and a lot of grace is in the body. Any way that portends to defile the body, even if it’s a very abstract sense, have a much more visceral reaction when it comes to social grace. Because religion is a very bodily activity in the Caribbean more so than even Southern Baptists in the U.S., anything that goes in slight contradiction to that, that is really the tension comes into. Where, for example, you find that even, let’s say you have a Catholic or Anglican Caribbean person, they tend to actually be less homophobic.

Most Underrated Caribbean Island?

RAJAGOPALAN: Other than Barbados, which is where you grew up, which is obviously the best because that’s where you’re from, what are your favorite islands and where do you recommend people travel?

GRIFFITH: It is a surprise how often we get this question, actually, because people really want to know that point. Barbados is a very good place to travel.

RAJAGOPALAN: There you go.

GRIFFITH: It’s good because it is safe. It is very safe. You don’t have to worry about many things. However, it’s very expensive now to travel to. That has been an explicit choice in some ways because the government has wanted to cater toward higher-end tourism. It’s not for younger people, for example. If you want a taste of Caribbean, but on a good budget, Dominican Republic is quite good for that. Punta Cana area is very good for that.

If you have a family, things like Aruba is good, Turks and Caicos is good, for example. Montego Bay, Jamaica is still on the agenda in some ways, but not to disparage or debrand Jamaica, but there are other places besides Montego Bay. If you like a nature thing, Saint Lucia is very good for that, and they have very good for example honeymoon destinations. They’re probably doing some good honeymoon stuff in Saint Lucia. Dominica for the more rugged like hiking and so on. Also, if you like diving, Dominica is very good for that as well.

It really depends on what you want to do. Also, French Caribbean is also good as well. It really depends on what you want to do. What you think you see, you see quite quickly, is that the Caribbean has a very clear similarity when it comes to its culture, and you see it across the board.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. The food is great, if I may add.

GRIFFITH: The food is fantastic.

RAJAGOPALAN: If someone doesn’t know anything about Caribbean music, where do you recommend, they start?

GRIFFITH: I was thinking of writing a post about this. 

RAJAGOPALAN: I’m so thrilled. We keep linking to all your posts. First, to those who are listening, Rasheed is one my favorite essayists. 

GRIFFITH: Yes. 1970s and early 1980s reggae is an easy place to start.

RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely.

GRIFFITH: It’s very good. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s very good as well because the themes in those songs are much more understandable. Granted, the accent, the words will be a bit tricky, but you could find some lyrics online, I’m sure, still for many popular songs. Peter Tosh and Gregory Isaacs, for example. Bob Marley is a very big name. I’m not actually a huge Bob Marley fan myself. Peter Tosh and Gregory Isaacs, I think, is a very good place to start.

Now, Caribbean music also is a very, very, very wide, wide category. You have Jamaican music, you have reggae, you have dancehall, you have merengue, you have salsa, you have soca, you have Calypso, you have all these things. It’s hard to even imagine where to start. For English reggae, English Caribbean music 1970s and ’80s reggae really is unbeatable. I think to this day, that’s still true.

For other things, for example, like Caribbean Calypso, 1990s Trinidadian Calypso is really, really good. This is an India podcast, there is some Trinidadian Calypso music called chutney soca, which is a mixing of Indian rhythms and Caribbean Calypso as well. That’s a fun integral part to get into there and you could branch out from there as well. There are few examples. There are many potential examples. I’m going to write about this because I get that question a lot. People want to know how to.

RAJAGOPALAN: I think it’s always hard to get a gateway into something. I love Calypso more than I love reggae.

GRIFFITH: Why is that?

RAJAGOPALAN: I don’t know. Okay, maybe I do know. I think a lot of my love for reggae depends on the lyrics and the meaning of the song. Whereas Calypso, I can enjoy, no matter what language it’s in. There’s French Calypso, and I can have a great time listening to French Calypso. I don’t know if I’ll have a great time—I do like French hip-hop, but I don’t know if I’ll have a great time following a lot of French reggae. If that category even exists, I’m not sure.

GRIFFITH: Yes, it does.

RAJAGOPALAN: I think that’s why I like it, but for you, do you prefer Calypso to salsa to reggae, or is it just like, this is too complicated? It depends.

GRIFFITH: 1980s reggae is a clear winner because it is not only musically very interesting, it’s also intellectually very interesting. Especially, for example, things like dub, like Lee Perry, for example, people like that. Dub is a hard one to get into, I will admit for sure. If you like EDM, I should say, EDM actually came from dub originally. If you like EDM, you can probably get into dub a bit easier.

RAJAGOPALAN: I actually think dub is very easy to get into for the current generation. It might have been harder for someone like me, for whom it was like a different new sound, but yes. I think the kids today will love dub.

GRIFFITH: That’s a fair point. That’s probably true. Yes, that’s a fair point. Yes, so dub is a good one to get into as well. It really was a very innovative and sonic rhythm and sonic structure as well. Then you have zouk in French Caribbean. That’s a really nice one. Then the reason why Calypso I think is, again, easy to get into, is because Caribbean music, like a lot of African music as well, but very surely, Caribbean is very body-centric. Calypso for sure, it gets into body very quickly, and you can feel it a lot more than other things.

V.S. Naipaul

RAJAGOPALAN: I want to come to books. Here it is impossible for an Indian and a Caribbean person not to talk about V.S. Naipaul, and we’ve had this conversation before. I do recommend at some point, we’ve chatted about this, I think you should definitely talk to Pratap Bhanu Mehta who’s written a lot about Naipaul’s India trilogy and the nonfiction aspect of Naipaul and how he looks at it. How do you view Naipaul in the Caribbean context? Like the broader question of history, postcolonial identity, even postcolonial revolution in some sense. I don’t mean literal revolution and coup, but this pushing back and carving out this idea of who they are.

GRIFFITH: Naipaul is a complicated character in a Caribbean-esque—

RAJAGOPALAN: In India too. He’s just I think complicated character across the board, but I’m glad it’s true in the Caribbean. Sorry.

GRIFFITH: Yes, it’s very, very true. Actually, depending on your English teacher in the Caribbean, you have a very particular exposure to Naipaul. I have a close friend, and we went to different schools, and we had a conversation how did we get into Naipaul, and he would always say that his teacher would always saying something very bad about Naipaul before she starts talking about Naipaul. Whereas my teacher would say something very, very good about Naipaul, very star-struck with Naipaul.

He has that contrast quite quickly. On the intellectual—the literati class in the Caribbean, I would say on net, he is quite disliked in the Caribbean. On net, that’s the case, in that particular class. In terms of education, it goes both ways. Me, per se, how I see Naipaul, I got into Naipaul maybe I guess was 15 years old or so, because you do it in school in some ways. We focus on “A House for Mr Biswas” as one that’s—

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, I love that book so much.

GRIFFITH: As one does. It’s just really good. It is very funny. All the themes you want to discuss in a literature, postcolonial literature society is in that book.

RAJAGOPALAN: Aspiration, right?


RAJAGOPALAN: It’s the girder that holds everything together, which is such a postcolonial thing.

GRIFFITH: Exactly. Naipaul to me is the most interesting Caribbean author in a way that he has a perception of the world, the postcolonial world, that is very anti-Caribbean thought. Which is, he believes, generally speaking, that moving away from the U.K. was the worst thing the Caribbean could have done. I think in some ways, he’s correct, but he’s not alone in that thinking.

I mentioned, back in the 1950s, it was just common parlance that it would be a weird thing to do to not be within the U.K. because as you see the Naipaul phrase, the universal civilization that we have access to will become so much smaller and you’ll put a bigger risk for your future generations to not have access to the same thing.

That kind of universal civilization ideology is completely opposed to postcolonial theory, where, especially in the Caribbean, postcolonial theory is you have to separate yourself and create a completely different universe. Not a sub-universe, a completely parallel plane. They never could agree on that kind of thing. It’s like a dramatic divergence. Also, I’ll say, one of my favorite Naipaul books is “In a Free State.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. I haven’t read that book. I should get that on my list.

GRIFFITH: It’s a very strange book. It’s strange for many reasons, of course. Also, one of the essential characters of the main story is a gay man, and he didn’t write about him in some—it was a gay character at that time period, that like, “Oh, this makes sense. This is correct.” To see that in that kind of context, from that kind of person, you realize, oh, he’s probably doing something actually in a different higher level than people give him credit for, even at that time. The diversity of will that he has in writing is really unmatched by any other Caribbean author.

I said he is not a big fan of Walcott. He’s not a big fan of Walcott firstly for a justified reason. He has a good line. He said, “Walcott’s poetry is full of unpeopled landscapes.” He thinks that there’s no Caribbean in this poetry. These are words on the page for every nation. Where Naipaul is saying, “No, I am taking up all the contradictions, all the flaws, all the modesty, all the crazy, all the niceness about Caribbean culture because Caribbean people are the central tale. If you don’t focus on Caribbean people, you’re not really talking about the Caribbean.” That’s how I mentioned to you in your very first question. You can’t dissociate Caribbean thinking from Caribbean people.

RAJAGOPALAN: That’s actually my favorite thing about Naipaul. He gets all the complexity right, but he’s so grumpy about it. For me, “A House for Mr. Biswas” is—I read it at different points in time. I also read it when I was much younger. I thought of it very much the way an Indian would approach it. “Oh, this is about family being outdated, and there’s this pull of tradition, and you want to step away from it.”

Even in India, this was the transition. When I was growing up was the transition between the big joint family, and people were moving into their own nucleur families and so on. So I read it very much from that point of view, and I found it to be a very Indian book in that all these Indian sagas are multigenerational dramas, and there are so many characters, and there are these cousins, and second cousins, and their children. I thought about it that way, but when I read it after I became an immigrant after I moved to the United States, I had a very different take on it.

Mr. Biswas is the Caribbean. Mr. Biswas is India. Mr. Biswas is Nigeria. Mr. Biswas is every postcolonial country fighting for a particular kind of identity. There are so many benefits of being part of the colonial identity: There’s great rule of law, there’s democracy, there’s this great British tradition, but you still want to be who you want to be. By the time postcolonial countries figured it out, you’re on your deathbed, and then you just really hope your children will enjoy whatever fruits of your labor, or your angst, or your aspiration.

I just had such a different take on it, and I know that’s how it is taught in school in the Caribbean. But I wasn’t taught it in school, so I just read it as like a fiction novel. I was like, “Oh, this sounds exactly like our family. There’s this crazy bunch of people,” and I enjoyed it. What are the other takes on it from the postcolonial lens of Naipaul?

GRIFFITH: I think one of the most important takes is just this idea that Naipaul really puts through a lot more in his later works as well, is—America is a good example. You have this idea that you can be British Canadian or Chinese American, these—

RAJAGOPALAN: You have hyphenates.

GRIFFITH: It’s that fun Toni Morrison line. She said, “In America, America means white. Everything else has a hyphen.” I always remember that line. In his view, he said that, “There are more people in the world that have the hybrid identity than those that have this singular pure identity. You have the Bengalis in some other part of India. You have the Caribbean people in London. You have the Chinese in America. Why is it that we see that as the separate idea?

That should be the norm and the pure thing should be this thing that’s queer. That is strange. In that reading, he really should have pushed out through also in this particular theme. No, this search you’re having, you realize that you shouldn’t even be searching in some ways. You are the main character in the story. Very often times, people tend to even avoid that reading of Naipaul. They’ll say, “He’s against India, he’s against the Caribbean, he’s pro-England.” None of those things are true.

The fact of the matter is that, going back to that thing I said earlier, the universal civilization is the way forward. A universal civilization is occupied and thrived by people that have that hybrid identity, like him, essentially in that sense.

RAJAGOPALAN: He’s like a triple hybrid identity there, right? I think in general, you’re right that this was at its peak between 1950s and 1980s maybe, that idea that global cosmopolitanism was the way forward and not parochial identities. I think that’s why as Naipaul gets older, he also gets grumpier because he is like, “I’m all for complexity, but you’re supposed to aspire to the global cosmopolitanism while not losing yourself, as opposed to have this parochial set of identities.” You don’t want to be Walcott, but you also don’t want to be insular like the people who do their own thing. I find that quite interesting. Of course, everyone’s complicated, and that’s why he’s good. 

What is the best Caribbean movie?

GRIFFITH: There are none.

RAJAGOPALAN: There are none?


RAJAGOPALAN: Not one good Caribbean movie?


RAJAGOPALAN: Even “Fire in Babylon” that we all love is a British documentary.

GRIFFITH: I wouldn’t even call it a movie, but it’s a documentary in that sense too, yes. If you’re talking about fiction, there really are none. I don’t say that if I were to think about it. I’ve thought about it, no.

RAJAGOPALAN: Okay. This is the most important question. Do you know Sir Garfield Sobers, Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner? I am asking for my husband because this is the most important thing that will be discussed when I go back home.

GRIFFITH: I know of them. I’ve met Sobers actually a few times. First time was primary school. He came to the school. The second time, I think it was in a restaurant, perhaps, or something like that. It’s a small country. It’s a very small country. I grew up in the same neighborhood as Rihanna.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. When can we meet her?

GRIFFITH: We’ll bring her to Mercatus and we’ll have a chat. 

RAJAGOPALAN: Did you know her at all?

GRIFFITH: I did. I did.


GRIFFITH: I lived three streets down. I had to walk past her house to go to school.

RAJAGOPALAN: I hope my husband knows who Rihanna is and is sufficiently impressed by this, but I think he will be more interested in, “When can we meet Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner?” I think that’s what’s going to happen when I go home. 

Thank you so much for doing this. This was such a pleasure. I wanted to talk to you about Argentina and Ecuador and a whole bunch of things, but this just means you will have to come back.

GRIFFITH: Okay. I’m down for that. 

Image credit: Errol Lloyd’s Notting Hill Carnival IIC, 1988. 

About Ideas of India

Host Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. Subscribe in your favorite podcast app